2015 Oscars: The Year of the Memorable Acceptance Speech

In Academy Awards show lore, 2015 will be remembered as the Year of the Memorable Acceptance Speech.  Sure, the merits of the Oscar winners will long be debated and Neil Patrick Harris’ performance as host will be critiqued right down to his tighty-whities.  But more than any year I can remember, multiple acceptance speeches were praised in real time on social media and are getting heavy post-Oscar night attention – and not just for the political positions espoused by a handful of the winners. 

The keys to a memorable two-minute speech are pretty simple:

•    Connect with energy, gratitude and humility
•    Make it personal by telling a story 
•    Leave the audience with a call to action or something meaningful to think about

Three winners in particular hit those marks:  J.K. Simmons (best supporting actor for Whiplash), Graham Moore (adapted screenplay winner for The Imitation Game) and Lonnie Lynn (aka Common, who along with John Legend, won for best original song – “Glory,” from the film, Selma).

Simmons set the tone in the first speech of the night.  He began with a heartfelt, “Wow, thank you.” He thanked his wife and kids…and then surprised us with a touching call to action:  “Call your mom, call your dad. Don’t text.  Don’t email. Call them on the phone and tell them you love ‘em and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”  He was grateful, humble, personal, funny, he challenged us – and he did it all in 166 words.

Moore’s remarks, which he connected to the story of Alan Turing, the real life subject of The Imitation Game, were extraordinarily powerful.  He spoke of attempting suicide at age 16. “I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here.”  He dedicated the moment to the kid watching at home who might feel she doesn’t fit in. “Yes, you do. I promise you do.  Stay weird.  Stay different and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the message to the next person who comes along.”  His words of encouragement – “stay weird, stay different” – will go down as the line of the night. 

The power of Lynn’s remarks can be found in both his tone of gratitude and humility and his passionate delivery.   He eloquently weaved a memorable theme – not easy to do in 54 seconds – around the “spirit of this bridge,” saying, “This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change…The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion and elevated by love for all human beings.”  

As presentation skills coaches, we talk a lot of preparation.  Lynn had clearly prepared for that moment.  He didn’t know if he and Legend were going to win the Oscar, but he knew with certainty that if they did, he knew what to say and how to say it.

The final nice Oscars speech moment came from an actor who didn’t win in his nominated category, who didn't get to give a full-blown speech.  Michael Keaton, who so many seemed to be hoping would win his first Oscar for his role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), joined the team on stage to accept the Best Picture trophy.

At the end of a very long night, when Keaton was encouraged to say a few words, he started down a very conventional path:  “This has been a tremendous experience. (Director Alejandro Iñárritu is) as bold as bold can be. And it was just a tremendous honor for me to…” Keaton seemed to catch himself, almost as if he suddenly remembered why people like him so much.  “Look, it’s great to be here. Who am I kidding? This is just great fun. Thank you very much.

Thanks to Simmons, Moore, Lynn – and Keaton, too – for understanding that even on a night when it’s all about you, your acceptance speech should be all about something else.  

And thanks for reminding us of the power of humility, gratitude, storytelling and a meaningful call to action.